Gaining the trust of non-technical leaders
16 April, 2018
At many organizations, I've seen leaders fail, particularly in product management, due to a lack of empathy and active listening. Sadly, neither they nor the people they interact with are consciously aware that this is the core problem, as it manifests in unrelated symptoms, including product specs that don't make sense to stakeholders. It's also very hard to teach these skills. Moreover, it can be tough to explain technical solutions to non-technical leaders without saying "just trust me" which most people don't feel comfortable with.
Many organizations have a "company-centered design" approach, in which senior leaders use their background and intuition about users and the market to determine the direction of the company's products. While this can work for some people some of the time, it's challenging to consistently have great success with unless luck or other factors are involved. We've been focusing on a "user-centered design" approach, in which our users/clients are regularly observed, interviewed, and trialed with our products to see what works and what does not. Similarly, it's important as leaders that we take the same approach to how we interact with other leaders. Rather than coming from ourselves and what we see the company needs, it's important that we look outwardly and seek to observe and understand the other leaders around us so we can appreciate what their goals, motives, cares, and fears are. By grounding ourselves empathetically in what they care about and following it with our own intuitions on these things, we're much more likely to hear and see things that we otherwise would not. I've been focusing on doing this by aiming to listen significantly more than I speak in meetings, and when I do speak, focusing on a high "signal-to-noise" ratio. Rather than "thinking in powerpoint form", fewer simpler words tend to hit home harder and faster. In Adam Grant's book, "Give and Take", he identifies that leaders who express openness and a desire to hear from their teams are much more likely to be respected and trusted over leaders who express their intents with high certainty and confidence but not seeking input. Similarly, if we as leaders interact with other leaders in a way that demonstrates we care about their opinion, and we ask if they feel heard, we're much more likely to have their trust.
When listening, don't focus on what you're going to say next. Actively repeat what you hear. Ask "does that sound reasonable?" frequently. The more you seek to understand, the more you will be both trusted and understood.
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